Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review
After having been severely burned by Assassin's Creed III, I was very skeptical going into Black Flag. I took issue with so many things in III that I fear beginning to list them would rabbit trail into an entire review for that game, rather than its sequel. Suffice it to say, Black Flag had some proving to do. The game is generally well regarded by critics and the gaming community, but it just simply doesn't change what the previous game was, so cautious optimism was the very most I could muster for this entry in the now annual franchise. Well, let me just dispel the mystery and let you know that I am not one of this game's few detractors; I quite like it in fact. However, as with nearly any game that I 'like', there are still several less than stellar aspects to talk about and dissect. With that in mind, let's get on to the review proper, yeah?
Assassin's Creed games are among the AAA games that go for absolute realism. They have advanced and very detailed 3d models, take place in 'mostly' historically accurate locations, and are now employing some damn fine facial mapping. This game is no different. It is easily the best looking Assassin's Creed game to date. Now, I don't mean raw number of pixels and how 'HD' the textures are--we'll be discussing that later; I merely mean that this game's realistic 3d visual style is very well realized. Everything looks as one would expect it to, and it is a joy to swim through clear waters, explore tropical islands, and traverse the various shanty towns.
Another high point comes from the character designs. Ubisoft have done a very good job of making everyone look quite 'pirate-y'--which isn't a word, but we're going to go with it anyway. Beards are scruffy, faces are dotted with scars, and wardrobes are out of a Pirates of the Caribbean fan's wet dreams. This game, like every other in the series, feels very much like a period piece. Now, I realize that the pirate setting and period has been pandered oo far more than some of the previous settings for the series, but I don't think that makes Black Flag any less genuine. I must admit, though, that I am not actually an expert in all things pirates, so if there is some historical inaccuracy for the sake of Jack Sparrow pandering, I simply did not see it.
Black Flag is really quite impressive from an audio standpoint. Whether you're listening to the rain pummel you during an especially nasty storm at sea or listening to the water splash underneath your feet as you run across a beach, the sound is rather dynamic and engrossing. The music also does a fine job of matching the mood of what is going on. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall any pieces in particular, but I was always pleased with what was playing at the time.
One more note for the music--it was high time for a good pun--that just cannot be ignored is the sea shanty system. One of the collectibles this time around are sea shanty song notes--say that three times fast. When you collect one, the crew of your ship learns a new song. This means that as you are out sailing, plundering, and being an overall mangy pirate, your crew will start randomly singing one of the songs that they know. Now, I am not ashamed to admit that I have attended a pirate festival, and I actually recognized some of these songs--Bully in the Alley is one that comes to mind. This is an incredibly fun extra layer that was added on, and it's minutiae like this that I often end up enjoying the most. You can also hear an assortment of other sea shantys sung by a female at some of the bars scattered around the world map. I have actually left the game on while sitting in front of the bars a couple of times--while doing other things around the house or on the phone--just to enjoy these in the background; they really are quite good.
The final aspect of the audio is of course the voice acting. Well, in typical Assassin's Creed form, it is very high quality. The characters all have very distinctive voices and personalities. They also do a very good job of managing all of the different accents that they are trying to deal with. I am so happy that we have come to a place with voice acting--especially in AAA games--where it is no longer cringe worthy, and we no longer need to be embarrassed when someone else enters the room when a scene with dialog is taking place. I also want to specifically point out two characters whose performance I was very fond of. Edward Kenway, the main character, has a very likeable voice actor. There is a lot of personality and sass in the performance, but there is a full range of other emotional responses to fit the situation. I was a very harsh critic of Connor's voice from the previous game--regardless of how accurate a portrayal of that type of character it was--so I was very happy to actually enjoy listening to the main character again. Blackbeard is the other one that I want to point out. Yes, he is quite cliché, but his performance is a perfect celebration of this game's subject matter, and it was a delight to listen to.
A nice visual design and great voice acting are obvious high points, but this is an interactive medium, so one might be wondering just how does it actually play? Well, this is an Assassin's Creed game! Honestly, the gameplay really hasn't changed all that much, and this is unfortunate. The combat is still rather boring, and there is still way too much of it. I wonder why the devs think that every encounter needs to end up turning into a twelve man murder simulator? There have been little tweaks here and there--like the ability to have four guns now--but these things are all quite minute in the scheme of things. The classic Assassin's Creed 'jank' is also here in full force. Why did you run up that wall three times in a row? Why are you stuck on that railing? Why can't you climb that rock? Who knows! Because: Assassin's Creed! Honestly, I am a huge fan of the free-form climbing mechanics in these games, but after this many entries in the series, the jank and irritation that comes along with it is really just unwelcome and unacceptable at this point. They can't just keep phoning it in. The engine and the very act of simple climbing, jumping, locomotion in general really needs an overhaul at this point. I was really quite frustrated by the end of the game with all of the nonsense.
The other main aspect of this game aside from the on foot gameplay is, of course, the ship combat. Well, I am glad to say that it is just as good as it was in Assassin's Creed III. It is a bit more in depth, of course, but it is certainly no worse for the ware. After the success of this game, Ubisoft sent out a questionnaire asking people if they would be interested in a non-Assassin's Creed pirate game. If it has the same level of detail and solid ship combat Black Flag has, then I would be all over that. The ship aspect of the gameplay is easily the most positive addition Assassin's Creed has made in years.
Like any game in the series, you'll be running around getting stuck on walls and brutally killing hundreds of enemies throughout a rather impressive amount of content. The main story is fairly lengthy; there are tons of islands and shanty towns to explore, and there are a lot of things to collect and upgrade. It's an open world game, and completionists will be kept busy for quite a while--my final play time was around fifty hours.
The other aspect of the main story that I have not mentioned yet is the present day segments. These are not a very prominent part of the story, and they honestly feel completely unnecessary. You walk around in the first person while the ham-fisted present day story is fed to you in piece-meal. There are also some rather boring hacking mini-games that you do here and there. That's all there is to it, really. I wasn't a fan of it, and it's certainly not why anyone should be playing this game.
The final thing I want to mention is the multiplayer. Now, I don't want to mention it because it's so great or because you should play it, but more-so because it is a thing that is there. I am not a fan of the multiplayer, and I haven't been since Revelations. I think the idea of the multiplayer is really unique and very interesting. I even really, really liked it in Brotherhood. You see, though, it is also rife with problems. People that decide to run around like idiots and not obey the unspoken 'rules' of how the games should be played can completely ruin entire matches. Now throw on certain annoying mechanics and the age old sin of higher level people having a FAR more impressive arsenal than lower level opponents and you have a multi-player component that I am obviously going to take issue with. I love how unique it is, but the execution is just severely flawed.
The plot sees you following Edward Kenway--a pirate who is still starting out and is certainly not established yet. You get to see him go from humble beginnings to a fair amount of prominence as a pirate by later in the story. The most interesting detail, though, is that he's not actually an Assassin. It is now that I should point out that spoilers are going to be fair game. The game begins with Kenway shipwrecked on an island with an Assassin. The Assassin and Kenway come to blows, and he ends up killing him and taking his outfit. The Assassin was actually deserting to the Templars, and Kenway decides to take his name and his cargo and go meet the Templars as the fallen Assassin. From here the story twists and turns with Kenway having run ins with the Templars and with the Assassins. Kenway is not hostile towards the assassins like he is towards the Templars, but he is also not one of them. He is a pirate that happens to be having some dealings with them due to some of the situations that he has gotten himself into. This makes for a very interesting story because it's not simply from the Assassins vs. Templars point of view. I mean, that is still going on, but Edward only partially has a horse in that race, and that makes the interactions more interesting and fresh.
Once we get past the initial setup, the story goes through periods of seemingly random meandering, which is then followed by a clear direction, and then it's back to a vague goal or meandering. I enjoyed the story throughout, but there is no doubt that it completely loses its way at certain points. Thankfully the characters are enjoyable enough that even when you aren't following the tenuous narrative threads, you will still simply enjoy watching them interact with Kenway. The story does ultimately build to have a couple of actual antagonists, and it does manage to contain several sub plots. I suppose that is part of why it becomes unfocussed. Each situation or 'arc' has some floaty and unfocussed time within it and between it and the next one. This allows the game to cover a few different larger situations over a period of time, which is a good thing, but it leads to the lack of focus that the game suffers from sometimes. I suppose it's a trade off, and the direction they took it certainly worked out alright in the end--caveats and all.
The other aspect of the story is the present day stuff. I will be honest with my view point on this. I absolutely hate what they ended up doing with the present day story. Throughout all of the games before III--and even during the majority of III--they had set Desmond up to be an actual Assassin. Hell, I wouldn't have been surprised if we had a game just set in present time playing only as Desmond. They had also been building the story to a crescendo with III; it was clear that was going to be the end. The problem is, they gave it a completely half assed ending--just enough so that this big building narrative was no longer sitting in their way--and they set themselves up to make an infinite amount of sequels. The present say segments see you as an employee working for Abstergo and going through Desmond's DNA memories. There are cameos of Shaun and Rebecca, so we know the assassins are still fighting back to some capacity. There are a couple of scenes dealing with the yet unresolved 'ones who came before' that do little to nothing to resolve or expand their story--which is how they need it to keep cranking out sequels--and there is a fairly cool cameo with the present day incarnation of the sage that you meet in Kenway's memories. Honestly, the present day segments did little more than remind me of the mess they have turned the overarching story into. I am still completely on board with the 'in-animus' stories that Assassin's Creed can tell, but the present day over arching story does nothing for me anymore, and I wish it was no longer a part of it.
Black Flag has its fair share of interesting characters. The best really has to be Captain Kenway himself, though. I really like how he progresses through the game. I am a huge proponent of character development. That means that no matter how unlikeable, archetypical, or shallow a character may seem at first, if they can experience substantial growth by the end of the story, then I will be happy and will be singing the praises of that story. Well, Edward fits this bill. He starts off as a fairly gruff and cocksure character. This attitude carries him through a good chunk of the game, but not without its consequences. As the story progresses--and time along with it--Edward starts seeing the repercussions of his actions. Friends either die or turn to enemies, plans fall apart, and he slowly starts understanding that his attitude and lack of finesse are having a substantial impact on his life. By the end of the game--when he finally pseudo-joins the assassins--he is much wiser and much more dynamic than who he was at the beginning of the game. He legitimately progresses and changes, and that is a wonderful thing to see. It also doesn't hurt that he is a very likeable character, so you are willing to put up with him when he is making rash and foolish decisions.
I was also very impressed with Edward Thatch--or Blackbeard, as he's more widely known. He also undergoes some very enjoyable development. When you first meet him, he is obviously already a fairly established pirate, but he doesn't yet possess the persona that he comes into by the end of the game. As the story progresses, he turns into Blackbeard, the fear of the sea and scourge of the earth. But, since Edward is a close friend throughout this, we also get to see who he really is during this transformation. He continues to be a high point of the game right up until his final appearance at his retirement party--yes, he realizes that he is old and the pirate life isn't for him anymore. I find it quite ironic that he would turn out to be such a high point. He is the most stereotypical 'pirate' character in the game. And yet, he is handled in such a way that he never feels anything but genuine and real. I applaud Ubisoft for making that very difficult combination work as well as they did.
There are several other more minor characters that end up being interesting for one reason or another, but none of the rest of the cast reach the level of Kenway and Blackbeard. Certain Templars--such as Laureano de Torres y Ayala--end up being engaging villains, and the sage Roberts is memorable for his craziness alone. I found that the rest of your 'friends' were very interchangeable--even though they play distinct roles in the story--with the exception of James Kidd. James is one of the few 'friends' that actually remains by your side without betrayal, or some other unfortunate circumstance, throughout most of the story. James is an interesting character because he is actually a she. I'm not sure if this was done for the sake of historical accuracy or if Ubisoft just wanted to be risqué, but it certainly adds an interesting layer to her character.
As interesting and unique as James/Mary--her real name--is, I don't feel that she actually gets enough attention paid to her. Why does she cross dress--aside from some obvious reasons that I could come up with? What about her past? Why is she a member of the assassins, and what is she doing for them? I could keep going, but you get the point. They had a very intriguing character with her, and I don't feel they fully made good on it. Perhaps they will use some other medium to explore her more, which would be great for the overall story, but it won't change the fact that she is somewhat underdeveloped in this game. This syndrome affects another of the main side cast, Adéwalé. He is your quartermaster throughout the entirety of the game. He is a slave that escapes captivity along with Edward very early on in the game, and Edward and he form a bond of respect--which would have been unusual between a white and black man during that time. They give his character a very strong foundation when he is first introduced, and he is then just left to flounder. His role in the game is reduced to the person that bitches at you for sixty seconds or so while you're sailing the ship at the start of certain missions. I know that he ends up with the spotlight in the Freedom Cry expand-alone, but that still doesn't change what is present in the main game. He is yet another character that Ubisoft wasted. I honestly wonder why they go to all the trouble of making such interesting characters that they could do so much with, to then proceed to not do any of those things with them. It's just a bloody waste.
As with all games I'll be reviewing, I've saved the performance discussion for last. Since this was a multiplatform game, I played it on PC. My rig as it was when this was played will be detailed after the wrap up. Assassin's Creed games have had a fairly storied past when it comes to PC versions, but I can honestly say that this is a large step in the right direction. The game has a rather robust options menu, supports resolutions at least up to 1440p--what I played it at--and even supports PhysX. Now, all of this comes at a bit of a price. Even at 1080p--what I played the first half of the game at--I needed to have PhysX at low and 2x MSAA or no AA at all to maintain 60fps--with everything else maxed, mind you. Once you look at my rig you will realize that is a little bit ridiculous. The game is absolutely gorgeous with strong texture work, fluent animations, and very nice lighting. It just all comes at a price.
I honestly can't say if the game needed more optimization, or if it's just legitimately that demanding, but the performance demands definitely need to be kept in mind. The game also has no triple buffering, so turning on V sync can make your frame rate plummet to thirty when it drops just a bit below sixty, which is obviously insufferable. The PhysX effects were integrated in post launch, and are nothing more than smoke effects--guns, cannons, and fires. These have a large FPS hit when in view, and I didn't find it to be worth it at all. The game also has a very odd sixty three cap for the frame rate, so no high refresh rate to be had here. As you can see, it is a bit of a mixed bag. It is a gorgeous game with fairly robust graphics options, but there are still some serious issues with their implementation and some of the basic expected functionality of a PC game. I hope that Ubisoft can take the foundation they have here and release a truly great PC experience with Unity--though after how they handled Watch_Dogs I am very skeptical.
As a quick aside for the other platforms, all of the console versions are locked to thirty frames per second. The PS4 outputs the game at 1080p, the Xbox One at 900p, and the 360, PS3, and WiiU at 720p (I will not be discussing any upscaling nonsense). Based on my research it seems that the WiiU version falls below the thirty FPS cap more often than the other seventh gen consoles. The PS4 version seems to be visually superior to the Xbox One version, although the performance seems very similar. I actually played a few hours of the game on PS4, and I was very impressed with the visual fidelity. It actually wasn't too far off how the game looked on my PC--while I was still playing at 1080p, at least. The idea that we're still playing AAA games on new hardware at thirty FPS is a different story all together, and one that I won't be diving into here. My research for differences in parity between the versions was largely done with information from Digital Foundry, who are extremely helpful for this sort of thing.
I find myself stalled and conflicted when it comes to wrapping up my thoughts on this game. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. I liked many of the characters, it was gorgeous to look at, and it is surely the best pirate game there has ever been. That said, though, I also strongly disliked how they are handling the current day segments--they seem so unnecessary to the core game at this point. I was unhappy with the lack of development for certain characters, the story loses its way several times, and the game still has way too much Assassin's Creed jank in it. Even with all that said, though, I can't help but feel that the good simply outweighed the bad. While I think it would have actually been a far better game if it was just a pirate game and wasn't an Assassin's Creed game, it is still a very enjoyable package as it is. If you are not someone who thoroughly analyzes and critiques the games you play, then I'm sure that many of my complaints will not even be apparent to you, and they will certainly not hinder your enjoyment of the game. This is a game that has a chance of pleasing non-Assassin's Creed fans and of appeasing those of us that were thoroughly disappointed with III. With that large of a potential audience, I can't help but recommend the game to anyone that has even a passing interest in it. Here is hoping that this year's Unity can right some of the wrongs that the series is currently grappling with, and give the franchise the advancement that it desperately needs.
EVGA 780ti Classified
Intel i5 3570k OCd @ 4.5 ghz
512 GB SSD